India: Poverty that the casual visitor cannot hope to understand
Hassan Daoud - 30/01/2006
As we sat around in the huge cultural center where we spent most of our time, we couldn't free ourselves from a nagging desire to return to that crowded place where we'd been led by Charles Landrey. A British citizen, Charles is an expert on urban spaces and their inhabitants and has written a number of books on the subject, but as we walked through the twisting alleys his enthusiasm was fired as almost never before. Scenes flashed before us, crowded, blaring, inspiring and Landrey was like a man who finds a treasure chest and scoops up as much as his arms will carry.
He told us that his curiosity reached fever pitch whenever he visited this place, a place that he described as “crazy.” He said that life here was almost indescribable, as it was impossible to focus on any one scene before his attention was seized by something else. For instance, the man who was single handedly dragging a loaded cart that a car engine would have had trouble shifting. His body was scrawny and it seemed as if every step would be his last. Yet somehow he kept on moving. Then a three-wheeled rickshaw drew up alongside us. Momentarily mesmerized, we watched as the driver, with muscle power alone, pulled the three fully-grown adults riding in the cab.
The main entrance to the area we were in stood opposite the Red Fort, which Charles described as the largest building in Asia. It seemed to us to a place of almost primal poverty. In all our years of watching documentary programs on the National Geographic and Discovery channels we'd never seen poverty on this scale. It was a place of intense wretchedness. We had already had a taste of these conditions when visiting the stupendous ruins outside the city. Our guide explained that the architects of these marvels had altered the very landscape to accommodate their projects. Huge stone tanks hung with balconies plunge into the ground. Once they were water tanks, but six hundred years have now passed and today's residents look like they have reached the final stage of a journey towards absolute poverty. The place was swarming with people, who lived in tents so small that it was impossible to sit upright in them.
Yet in this secluded spot, far from the bustling city, their poverty seemed somehow less severe. Perhaps it was the smiles that would appear whenever a tourist pointed his camera at them. The men were wrapped in thick woolen blankets to keep out the cold, and it wasn't difficult to see that these blankets never left their bodies, whether awake or asleep.
Only in India are the palaces of the past just another facet of poverty. A single camera lens can capture poverty and history together: a man swaddled in layers of blankets standing on a palace balcony as though he were its lord and master. The road that leads to this historic sight is no better than the roads our villagers use to take them to their fields. The poverty in the countryside around Delhi is old, ongoing and unchanging. Although our guide told us that they were probably the product of an emigration away from the wretchedness of city life, the inhabitants of the ruins seemed to have been born from the very soil itself. The new is absorbed into an atmosphere of timeless, ageless want.
According to the social planner and educationalist Amit Miran, some 60,000 people make their way to Delhi every day, where they remain, steadily descending the social ladder until they reach the neighborhood that faces the Red Fort. Before getting there, however, they encounter the outermost suburbs where cows roam the streets like dogs, snuffling in piles of rubbish for their meals. Cows are sacred here, and as Mr. Amit himself admits, the vast quantities of dung they provide makes up for the loss of their inviolable flesh. In the countryside (and not in the "slums", as they call them here) this dung has enabled India to do without chemical fertilizer.
"Look! Look at the cows!" the Chinese poet said to me as we tried to pick our way through the crowds that lined the narrow street, a street so long it was impossible to make out where it ended. Could it be that they belonged to nobody? How did they manage to wander around at their leisure, mingling with the crowds as if possessing an almost human intelligence?
Dogs, too, took their share of the cramped space, while children--some no more than two or three years old--filled any narrow spaces that remained. The number of homeless children is growing so fast that the Kata Institute--which organized a huge conference of Asian Cities earlier this year--has only been able to save some 250 of them. The institute established a school to teach them everything from cooking and sowing to English and accounting. "There are many NGOs here in India," we were told by the headmistress of the Kata school, but she could have added that despite their efforts these organizations have done little to change the situation in India. After all, the number of children that the school looks after is pitifully small.
Mr. Amit failed to reassure us that although they were poor, the inhabitants of the area were not hopeless. At the start of our meeting, he even tried to tell us that they weren't really poor at all since their diet was better than that of most Americans. "Leave the Americans out of it," I told him, before asking him whether he really believed that these people weren't poor. "They are true believers," he informed us, invoking the old cliché of the Indian who has escaped from the world into spiritualism. Having insisted that faith narrows the gulf between the social classes, he tried to tell me that I should look at poverty from a different perspective. But how could I, when the three temples I visited only made me even more baffled. The statues scattered throughout the temples' grounds combined human and animal forms or blended a number of human bodies in a single figure. To see these statues amidst such wretchedness made me realize that such worship allowed the men huddled around their little fire to lose themselves in the supernatural and fantastical and forget their desperate lives. Squatting down, with their bodies and faces hidden by blankets they called to mind the lepers you read about in stories. "So why don't the people here start a revolution?" Amit asked, before reeling off the names of countries that had mounted revolutions (starting, naturally, with Russia's communist uprising) as he attempted to show that poverty here was somehow different.
As the most casual visitor can tell for himself, it is because poverty here is not a modern phenomenon but an ancient, fundamental truth. Everything in India, the indigenous and the new alike, becomes immortal, unchanging. In the suburb on the outskirts of Delhi we saw an elephant that was not provided for the amusement of the tourists. It was an exhausted working elephant. Its owner had mounted a platform on its back to carry provisions, and it looked for all the world like a small truck. On the road from Delhi airport we had seen a cart being pulled by two bulls and bicycles being put to every use human ingenuity could possibly conceive. The company that run the city's buses--worn down rust-buckets all of which are sixty years older or more--proudly prints its company logo on their peeling flanks.
Old or new, nothing leaves India once it has arrived: the country is a living display of successive visitors to its shore throughout history. Once arrived however, everything has to look after itself: historical ruins must fight to remain standing; sacred cows are not made sacred by anyone, they just are, their status better enabling to scavenge through trash and keep themselves alive. The old remains old. Innovation goes against the true nature of things.
Whenever we go walking in historic areas in Cairo, Beirut or Damascus, the presence of the new constantly intrudes and disrupts the harmony we seek. A new Toyota parked by the building we wanted to visit; a neon sign hanging in Cairo's al-Ghouriyya neighborhood; brightly colored jeans and T-shirts hanging in Damascus’ Suq al-Hamadiyya.
By the Delhi minaret, built 600 years previously, the eyes of the poor followed the buses that passed in front of them before disappearing into a side street as if they wanted to make sure they had really gone for good. The neighborhood in front of the Red Fort is known as Shamadni Shuk and its boiling, many-faceted poverty could swallow us whole, despite the guidance and protection of our English friend and his wife. "Take us back to Shamadni Shuk," we'd ask Charles. No matter where we wandered in New Delhi, we were never as alive and observant as when we walked through that particular neighborhood. It had a dense, living poverty that made documentary films on urban destitution seem more like propaganda than the real thing. Sitting around in our hotel, we would plead with him: "Take us, Charles…"
Yet the whole time we were there we never bothered taking the short walk that led to the Uday Garden that was extensively praised by an Indonesian woman staying at the hotel. We were merely irritated by the calm and spacious Gorbagh district with its trees and birds and beautiful houses. As we rode around in our little taxis--in truth no more than motorcycles dressed up to resemble cars--we would remark to each other over and over again that New Delhi was packed with trees: maybe it was one of the greenest cities in the world. Huge villas and their grounds gobbled up vast expanses of New Delhi real estate to give their owners peace and peace of mind.
Yet this is the same city that plays host to floods of immigrants from the Indian countryside and neighboring states such as Bangladesh and Nepal. Indeed the poor seem to prefer their crowded quarters as if to deliberately create the impression of two cities or to leave India's reputation unsullied by unsightly poverty. The division between the two Indias is complete and unbridgeable. The first is an India that pursues a Western lifestyle with a vengeance, the India of Bollywood. Then there are the adverts we watch on an Indian channel in Beirut, promoting facial creams, body lotion and conditioning shampoos, that seem to be aimed at an entirely different country all together. There was almost nothing in India to tell us that her citizen's standard of living was increasing with every passing year. It's even getting more beautiful, with three Indian Miss Worlds in recent years.
India the chameleon, the ever-changing, never changes for the poor, yet they seem not to mind. Over the course of the Asian Cities conference's various seminars Amit started to become something of a propagandist for his country. He would hold forth on its superiority over its neighbors and at times his philosophy of "happy poverty" seemed exceptionally brittle, especially when he used the fact that there are over 630 species of birds in New Delhi as proof that of all cities in the world, his had the cleanest atmosphere. Talking about the "richness of poverty" he would state that there were more than a hundred names for God in India. But we found it easier to believe his point that there was something exalted about material things in Delhi. We once saw a taxi driver wrap a scarf round his dirty, combed beard with a slow dignity that brought to mind the princes of years past. Despite his poverty he had enormous respect for himself. Or as Amit might say, we rushed to form an opinion without a proper understanding of the matter.
Others we spoke to at the conference told us that the poor were in denial of their condition. Yet on our second visit to Shamadni Shuk we noticed security personnel that we had missed the first time. They seemed to be not so much guarding against poverty as watching over it, even warning it. They had placed sandbags around their small observation post beside a crossroads peering out as if expecting a sudden assault. The British lady commented that they were probably following normal procedure, but both myself and Jabbar Yasin, an Iraqi, immediately replied that sandbags were only set up when the security services were expecting attacks. The gardens in Gorbagh were also guarded and their huge gates--impossible to break down or jump over--locked from 10.30pm onwards. This is the daily reality of poverty, it's truth on the ground, as Amit put it. And Amit's views, however much we criticized them, left their traces in our thoughts.